By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
SULAYMANIYAH, Iraq, July 28 -- Facing what could prove a turning point in tumultuous Kurdish politics, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani vowed Tuesday that he would lead the revival of his party after a surprisingly successful challenge by opponents in last week's election led some to speculate that it might be the beginning of the party's end.
In an interview, Talabani, the 75-year-old politician and former guerrilla who founded the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) more than 30 years ago, sought to cast the election results in the best light. But the success of the Change list, led by former Talabani colleagues , against an alliance of the PUK and the other leading Kurdish party clearly surprised him.
More than a contest among parochial groups in a relatively quiet region, the struggle for political power in the Kurdish north could have sweeping repercussions for Iraq's mercurial politics. The alliance between Talabani's party and Kurdish President Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party has held for years, though no one has really forgotten the civil war they fought in the 1990s. Their claim to represent Kurdish consensus is crucial, too, in negotiations with Baghdad over today's most pressing issues: a law to share Iraq's oil revenue and a resolution to the disputed border between Iraq's Arab and Kurdish regions.
Talabani promised that there would be changes in his party's program and added: "Surely there will be changes within the leadership." Despite his age and bouts with ill health, Talabani suggested the work would be his priority.
"President of Iraq is something temporary, but being a member of the PUK is something permanent," he said with an Iraqi flag behind his desk, one of the few in a region that enjoys a remarkable degree of autonomy from the government in Baghdad.
Many expect Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to try to exploit Kurdish divisions in his feud with the autonomous region. Although official results in Saturday's election have yet to be announced, Change is expected to hold almost as many seats as each of the two Kurdish ruling parties. A colleague of Talabani's said Talabani had expected Change to win just a few seats, far fewer than the 25 or so that it may wind up with in the 111-member parliament.
"When a group makes a revolution and seizes power, they say they have the right to lead the country," Talabani said, by way of defending the results. "In our country, on the contrary, we who led the revolution, we gave the chance to the people to decide."
Talabani is quick to smile and has an avuncular appeal, though there is still an edge to his words, testament to years he spent in mountains so inhospitable to foes. While he relishes the prospect of writing his memoirs, he said, he still believes he has more years to work with his party, a point on which not everyone agrees.
Discontent runs rife in Kurdish life over the dominance of the two parties, whose leadership exercises far more influence than the parliament itself. Complaints of corruption are rampant, as is frustration over nepotism and patronage. Despite Talabani's contention, the parties still treat their legitimacy as a war-won right.
"He's too old to do that," Muhammad Tofiq, a Change candidate and former colleague of Talabani's, said of Talabani's promise to lead the reform. "And the people around him, they all have their agendas. It's very difficult to see how they can rebuild it."
Talabani himself was buffeted by criticism from each direction. Some said he spent too much time in Baghdad, losing touch with his Kurdish constituency. He acknowledged the criticism. Others said that as Iraq's president, he belonged in Baghdad.
"He's a president, and he has much more important jobs to do," Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish member of Iraq's parliament, said from his home in Baghdad. "Baghdad is most important to us. It's the capital. It's where our problems are going to be solved."
In both Baghdad and Irbil, the Kurdish capital, the challenges to Talabani are expected to proliferate in the months ahead. The dispute with the federal government has grown, with Kurdish leaders in Irbil warning that tension could erupt into bloodshed. Talabani, though, was much more conciliatory, even suggesting the possibility of an alliance with Maliki in January elections that will choose a new national parliament.
Although Barzani and Maliki have not talked in a year, and bitterness remains pronounced, Talabani predicted they would need to meet for a only few hours to reconcile.
"I think they can solve it in two meetings," he said.
The two Kurdish ruling parties, though, are themselves entering uncharted territory. They went into the election with a promise to evenly split their share of parliament seats. Barham Salih, a Talabani ally and Iraq's deputy prime minister, was supposed to become the Kurdish region's prime minister. But even before Change won most of its votes in Talabani's stronghold of Sulaymaniyah, Barzani's officials began questioning, sometimes bluntly, why they shouldn't retain the post. The speculation only mounted after the votes were tallied.
Talabani was dismissive. He planned to meet Barzani on Wednesday to lock up the deal. "There's no doubt," he said of Salih's chances.
Most threatening, though, may be the test posed by his party's dissidents, some of whom he said he has known for as long as 50 years. The revolt was led by Talabani's former deputy, Nosherwan Mustafa, who has vowed to overturn the party's hegemony over public life. His critics call him an architect of that very hegemony.
"There was no number two or number three in the PUK," Mustafa said. "There was only number one."
"I'm telling you very frankly, I'm very glad they left the PUK," Talabani answered. "They were our main problem and our main headaches for years and years."
But, he added, if he saw Mustafa tomorrow, he would offer only kind words.
"I would congratulate him that he got seats in parliament," he said.